The All Music Guide called Eckman “one of the most underrated U.S. songwriters, a man who can pack a short story into image-laden lyrics.” The new album - Where the Spirit Rests - is amongst his most personal and vivid. A place to which he has been headed all along.
This has been a time that’s clawed at our hearts. It’s dug deep into our bones. It’s been a time to reach for touchstones to help us through it all, whether it’s the solace of the familiar or the seeking of something new. For Chris Eckman, the time brought the desire to write songs once more, crafting and shaping the music that would become his new album, Where the Spirit Rests.
“I hadn’t played a lot of guitar in the last few years,” explains Eckman (whose other job is running the global music label Glitterbeat). Even before the pandemic tore the world apart, he’d been confronting difficult changes in his personal life. Picking up the instrument again brought a muscle memory, a lifeline. It was a return to the things he’d known for decades as a musician. “From that, some songs came. They weren’t very good at first, then around spring things started to grow.”
Songwriting brought a way to navigate his life, to articulate the thoughts and emotions tumbling around his head. At that point, though, they were only songs; he had no thought of making them into an album.
“There was no deadline, there wasn’t even a project; I had time to think about words and lines,” he recalls. “I ended up with between 15 and 20 songs. Seven made it onto the record.”
Of those seven, the first two on the record (“Early Snow” and “This Curving Track”) came as his writing began to catch fire, while the final three (“Northern Lights,” “Where the Spirit Rests” and “CTFD”) were among the last of the batch.
Together, they form a collection of oblique short stories, “an internal dialogue between a person and the outside world,” Eckman says. “It’s a very insular voice, kind of like those Samuel Beckett rolling monologues.” But there’s nothing abstract here. The narrator’s perspective is always firmly rooted in the real world. “I wanted dirt under the fingernails, touching the earth,” he adds.
The opening lines of the album’s first track “Early Snow,” vividly set up the record’s prevailing mood: “The snow came early / And stayed long / Deep into the spring / So much shock / Too little awe / Thought I’d seen everything / Didn’t count on the bitterness / Hit me unforeseen / Didn’t count on the revisionist / History written sloppily.”
Eckman crafted and sharpened the songs, honing them down to muscle and blood. They opened up and breathed. Everything came alive. It was time to record.
The recording process began as tentatively as the writing. Eckman has years of studio experience, as a performer with The Walkabouts, Dirtmusic and others and as the producer of countless albums. This time, though, he needed things to be different.
“I was too close to it to record it myself,” he says. “I needed to give up a little control. I needed someone else to be the producer. I already knew Alastair McNeill; he’s an electronic composer and he used to work with Roísín Murphy. After he moved to Ljubljana, where I also live, Alastair built a studio in the turret of a castle that seemed perfect for the air and light I wanted in the music. It’s only a mile or so from me, so I’d walk over for a couple of hours, do one song, maybe two. All the vocals and guitar were recorded in single takes, even the four pieces I recorded with double bass and drums. Everything live. Doing it that way brings a sense of fragility and reality.”
The whole sound of Where the Spirit Rests is intimate and close. Eckman’s dusty voice and hypnotic acoustic guitar draws the listener into the hushed secrets gradually being revealed.
Once he’d finished the basic tracks, Eckman “listened to the songs for two weeks. I liked the space in the music, but I felt it needed a bit more atmosphere and texture. We were in deep lockdown, I couldn’t go anywhere. So I had to pick out people I wanted for different songs and send them the music.”
He trusted the collaborators to add what was right. His only instruction was to listen closely and then record what they heard. It was a calculated risk, “but I had it all back in four or five days and I didn’t change a note. I just lined up what they’d done with the original tracks. It turned out to be one of the least deliberately arranged records I’ve ever done.”
The contributions ranged from the simplicity of McNeill’s disquieting synth drone under “Early Snow” to ambient country pioneer Chuck Johnson’s atmospheric pedal steel on “This Curving Track.” Eckman was wary about approaching him, as he releases Johnson’s acclaimed albums via his label. But in the end that was no problem; it turned out Johnson had been a fan of Eckman’s former band, The Walkabouts. Old Seattle friend Jon Hyde brought woozy, boozy carousing steel sounds to “Drinking in America,” a track that teeters on a knife-edge of violence – what Eckman calls his “break up with America song.”
Violinist Catherine Graindorge, who orchestrated “Cabin Fever” and the title track, brought the kind of colours and unpredictability that’s highlighted her work with John Parish and Nick Cave/Warren Ellis. Chris Cacavas, pulled his Wurlitzer electric piano out of the closet for the subtle gospel shadings on “Where the Spirit Rests.” And Eckman’s long-time Ljubljana cohorts Blaž Celarec (drums) and Žiga Golob (upright bass), provided the supple, resonant groove.
Track by track, Where The Spirit Rests unspools patient, lengthy songs. Like a grainy Super-8 film, scene builds upon scene, each revealing a kernel of truth, and the stark honesty at its heart.
“I’m interested in how the story is told, the narrative aspects. The elusive details,” Eckman says. “Maybe that makes things not so easy to navigate. You have to mark out a listening space.”
Take the time. Follow the curving track that leads from the disorientation of “Early Snow” to the promise of redemption that hangs like hope over “CTFD.” But in these times, it’s still only a tentative destination on the horizon: “I see tomorrow different now/ Both savage and demure/ August comets glistening/ Though still a bit unsure”.
Gradually, cautiously, moving towards a place where the spirit can rest. - Chris Nickson